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Barbiturate Overdose – Can Cause Death Quicker Than Narcotics


This drug is a relatively old class of drugs that were first developed by Germanys’ Bayer Laboratories in the 1860s and were widely used during the 1960s and 70s to treat a wide variety of conditions, including sleep and seizure disorders, anxiety, and migraine headaches.

One of the most common forms of this drug is Phenobarbital (aka Phenobard) It was first introduced in 1912 and it continues to be prescribed today. Most are distributed in pill form. Some such as Phenobarbital are also available in suppository form and an oral liquid. These variations are for the treatment of people with epilepsy and similar seizure disorders.

  • It is also occasionally prescribed to people who suffer from anxiety, and in specific cases to help control withdrawal symptoms and regulate brain activity in dependent users.

Recreational Use

Because they are rarely prescribed today, many recreational drug users are unfamiliar with the effects of this drug.  Some common brand names include Butisol, Luminal, and Pentothal.

  • Also known as ‘downers’, they are sometimes taken by people who use cocaine or methamphetamine in order to counteract excessive effects of these stimulants.

Recent statistics from England and Wales shows that deaths linked to this drug dropped significantly from 2000 to 2010 when compared to the previous decade, however, these numbers rose again from 2011 to 2016.

Celebrity Deaths

Despite the fact they have been largely replaced by benzodiazepines among both medical and recreational users, barbiturate use continues to be linked to numerous overdose incidents each year, and they have played a role in the deaths of numerous musicians and celebrities.

– Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix died in 1970 at the age of 27 from asphyxiation caused by intoxication induced by the sedative Vesparax. Reports indicate Hendrix may have consumed up to nine Vesparax tablets on the day of his death, or the equivalent of 18 times the therapeutic dose.

– Marilyn Monroe

Like Hendrix, Marilyn Monroe’s sudden death in 1962 was also caused by Pentobarbital – the same drug that actress Margaux Hemingway used to commit suicide in 1996.


The difference between a therapeutic dose and an overdose is minimal, and regular users often require progressively larger doses in order to achieve the desired effects.

Some of the common signs of an overdose can include:

  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Slowed respiration rate
  • Poor reflexes
  • Confusion and lack of coordination
  • Loss of bowel and/or bladder control
  • Coma

Because they are central nervous system (CNS) depressants, they slow down many bodily functions, including brain activity, reflexes, and respiration rate which can lead to death. A study published in the British Journal of Anesthesia revealed:

  • This drug can cause death quicker than narcotics, even when the respiratory system was depressed to similar rates.

In this study, rabbits were given it or narcotics. While the test subjects were able to recover from severe depression of their respiratory system induced by narcotics, they were unable to recover from barbiturate-induced respiratory suppression – this was despite the fact that it actually caused a less dramatic slowing of breathing rates in the rabbits.

Alcohol Use

This drug and alcohol are both CNS depressants. When users consume alcohol, the effects of both substances “are multiplied and the risk of death increases”.

In 1997 this drug and alcohol were used by 39 Heaven’s Gate religious cult members to commit what remains as the nations’ worst mass suicide to date. According to the New York Times:

  • “The combination of phenobarbital and alcohol that at least some members of a cult apparently took to commit suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, California. It is well known to be a lethal mixture”.

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